Saturday, December 10, 2016

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Triumph—The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The United Nations General Assembly meeting in Paris on December 10, 1048 adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Today is International Human Rights Day which commemorates the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly meeting at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948.  The vote was 48 ayes, 0 nays and 8 abstentions.  The abstentions came from the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian and Belorussian S.S.R.s, Yugoslavia and Poland, as well as South Africa, and Saudi Arabia.
The Declaration was an outgrowth of the bitter lessons of World War II and of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms which had become the foundation and promise of the alliance against the Axis Powers known at the United Nations.  As the war drew to a close, the United Nations was chartered as new international body to replace the failed League of Nations.  From the beginning codifying international standards for rights was a priority.
Canadian legal scholar John Peters Humphrey, Director of the Division of Human Rights within the United Nations Secretariat, was selected as the principle writer.  He worked closely with a commission chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, a tireless advocate for a strong declaration.  Members of the commission were selected from a representative cross section of UN members—Australia, Belgium, Byelorussia, Chile, China, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Lebanon, Panama, Philippine, United Kingdom, U.SA, Soviet Union, Uruguay and Yugoslavia.   
Eleanor Roosevelt admires her handiwork.

Humphrey produced a draft which became the working document with details to be haggled over.  Besides Mrs. Roosevelt,   Jacques Maritain , René Cassin and Stéphane Hessel all of France; and Charles Malik, a Lebanese Christian;  and China’s P. C. Chang played leading roles in working over Humphrey’s texts.
There were numerous struggles in the commission, particularly over objections of Islamic countries over the rights of women, marriage, and the freedom to change religions.  The Soviet Union and its allies and vassal states fought furiously against enshrining individual liberties “at the expense of common necessity.” And conservative Western governments were just as adamantly opposed to including social, economic, and cultural rights.  Mrs. Roosevelt played a key role in patching over differences and coming to a conclusion.
None-the-less, after months of work within the commission the General Assembly debated almost every point and held more than 1,400 votes on virtually every word and clause in the document before it was ready for a final vote of approval.
The Universal Declaration drew heavily on the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.  In turn this was reflected in the First Principle of the Unitarian Universalsit Association affirming the "Inherent worth and dignity of every person. 

In 1966 the UN General Assembly adopted two detailed additional Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and on Civil and Political Rights, which were ratified by sufficient numbers of member states by 1975 to become international law.  The Universal Declaration of Human rights along with the two covenants are now considered the International Bill of Rights.
The documents, taken together, are important in and of themselves.  But in practice member nations have seldom been willing to challenge the national sovereignty of member states known to be violating the terms of the agreements and perpetrating even the grossest of Human Rights abuses. 
In the midst of a global economic crisis and regional ethnic and religious turmoil, Human Rights are under constant attack.  And the United States, which once proudly proclaimed them, now prefers to cite American exceptionalism for permission to observe them in the breach.  That was the position of the George W. Bush administration for launching the so-called war on terror including acts of kidnapping, summary executions, the use of torture, and indefinite detention without trial.  Although President Barack Obama backed away from some of the excess like the use of torture, he continued and escalated a policy “destroying terrorism anywhere” leading to undeclared war in dozens of countries, targeted assassinations including American citizens, and unrestricted drone warfare resulting in mass civilian casualties.  It has been the shame of his Presidency.
Now comes Donald Trump, an open admirer of “strong leaders” with disastrous human rights records like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has proposed ethnically targeting Muslims and immigrants, revoking citizenship of some protestors—flag burners to start with, and waxed nostalgic for the use of harsh tactics against demonstrators.  His unleashed supporters feel free to harass, intimidate, and threaten anyone who irks him and have physically assaulted Muslims, women, perceived immigrants, LBGT individuals, the homeless, the disabled, liberals and their families.  He has appointed known White nationalist to the highest levels of his administration.  His former campaign manager just announced that “there must be consequences” for those who publicly oppose her boss.  The list goes on and on.  The news gets worse daily.
Human rights are under assault around the world and especially threatened by the rise of Trumpism in the U.S.  The United Nations has never lived up to its obligations to protect individual and groups under attack in member nations.  Clearly the United States government in the hands of the incoming regime not only will offer no protection but will become the oppressor.  Only the people themselves can protect their rights.  Stand up!  Stand united! Join the Resistance!

The fact is that Trump may not only make the Universal Declaration a dead letter, he seems willing to throw the Constitution on the fire as well.
May the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt haunt the dreams anyone who collaborates in the effort.  The rest of us need to be ready for active resistance.

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